Whatever happened to Fan loyalty?

KIRK PENTON -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 7:23 AM ET

Ryan Paradis is a huge Pittsburgh Steelers fan, which presented a problem in December when they travelled to Carolina to take on the Panthers. That's because Carolina receiver Steve Smith was on Paradis' fantasy football team.

A perfect outcome for Paradis would have been a 49- 42 Pittsburgh win, so long as Smith caught four touchdown passes and no one else in his pool has the Steelers who score the points for Pittsburgh.

It didn't quite work out that way, as the Steelers strolled to a 37-3 win.

Paradis was happy, but he was also sad.

Welcome to the weird, wild and wacky world of sports in the fantasy era, which some traditional sports fans argue is ruining the real fun of cheering for your favourite team.

"It's not harder to root for your team, but it makes you feel bad when your team's playing one of your players," Paradis said. "... It's hard to justify things sometimes."

Dr. Garry Smith, who studies gambling at the University of Alberta, said fantasy pools are certainly having a negative effect on fan loyalties.

"You're more interested in the games, but you lose rooting interest in the event in some ways," Dr. Smith said. "I know in NHL playoff pools, if your guys go out early, a lot of guys aren't interested anymore. They don't care who wins. Their guys are gone, so whatever."

It's a catch-22 for the purists. Fantasy might be bringing more fans to certain sports, but it's creating a new kind of supporter that roots for players instead of teams.

"There's a lot of people I've heard complain about how they think fantasy sports is wrecking the sports fan, but I don't think so," Paradis said.

"I think it's making sports more accessible to some people who wouldn't have found an opportunity to get involved with a sport."

Mike Shiner, a 36-year-old operations manager from Thornhill, Ont., needs fantasy to give his interest a boost.

"I've always loved sports, but I've always loved hockey pools," he said. "The sports season, as invigorating as it is ... sometimes you just need that little extra edge, and that's why I love combing box scores. It's an added element."

It also means that some poolies anticipate a Major League Baseball game between two basement dwellers in the middle of August more than they would the Super Bowl.

"I love fantasy, but I loved sports before-hand, and I knew the third-string running back on the 49ers before fantasy football ever existed," said Nate Ravitz, rototimes.com co-founder and USA Today fantasy columnist. "But for the majority of the people, it gives them a reason to care about a game that they wouldn't other wise care about.

"It's just a great past-time, hobby."

It may be only a hobby, but it's injecting billions of dollars into the sports industry, which means it's here to stay.

"The numbers all show that fantasy players attend more games and spend more money on DirectTV, NFL Sunday Ticket packages, MLB Extra Innings," Ravitz said. "This customer base is the advertiser's dream right now, and that's one thing that's really helped it."

The traditional sports fan can always find hope in guys like Dan Moir, a Winnipeg accountant who competes in seven league and pools a year but will always bleed Purple and Gold, and be fond of pinstripes -- no matter what.

"I had favourite teams, and I still stick with those favourite teams," Moir said. "More often than not, if it came down to me either winning fantasy or seeing the Minnesota Vikings win or the Yankees win, I go with my teams."

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THE BREAKDOWN

Memo: Fantasy Sports Trade Association (fsta.org)

The Fantasy Sports Trade Association conducts yearly market research on the industry in the U.S., which undoubtedly includes Canadian players.

Here are a few facts and figures that were compiled in 2006 by Dr. Kim Benson of the University of Mississippi:

ECONOMIC IMPACT

- $1-$2 billion within fantasy sports industry

- $2-$4 billion across sports industry

THE AVERAGE PLAYER

- plays two sports

- is in six leagues

- has played for nine years

- spends $439.60 per year

- is an educated professional

- likely started playing offline (55%)

- likely plays with people he or she knows (75%)

- spends three hours per week playing

INTERNET USERS

- 22% of U.S. adult males, 18 to 49 and with Internet access, play fantasy sports

MOST POPULAR SPORTS

- football (80%)

- baseball (30%)

- auto racing (26%)

- basketball (20%)

- hockey (12%)

- golf (7%)

THE IMPACT ON REAL SPORTS

The following represents the percentage of American fantasy players who attend at least one sporting event per year compared to the percentage of all Americans who do the same

FANTASY PLAYERS / AMERICANS

MLB 60 / 12

NFL 47 / 9

NBA 28 / 8

NHL 27 / 4

THE SOCIAL IMPLICATIONS

- 60% know the other participants in their leagues and live within 200 kilometres of each other

- 40% say fantasy sport participation increases camaraderie among fellow employees

- 16% say fantasy sport participation has allowed them to make valuable business contacts

- 30% say they have made friends at work due to fantasy sports

- 51% play in an NCAA basketball bracket contest at work


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